Pseudonyms Granted in Ten Commandments Suit

     (CN) – Anonymity is necessary to avoid “violence and ostracism” against a student and parent suing over a Pennsylvania school district’s Ten Commandments statue, a federal judge ruled.
     In 1957, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, a national civic organization, donated a nearly 6-foot tall stone monument of the Ten Commandments to the Connellsville Area Junior High School in Pennsylvania.
     The monolith, which stands near the front entrance to the school auditorium, also bears two stars of David and two tablets inlayed with what appears to be ancient script.
     On Sept. 27, 2012, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued the Connellsville Area School District. Joining as plaintiffs were a “non-religious” Connellsville student and his foundation-member parent, referred to in court documents as Does 4 and 5, respectively.
     They claimed the statue coerces students to adopt the school district’s preferred belief system and usurps parents’ rights to raise their children as they see fit.
     U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry in Pittsburgh refused to dismiss the action in March.
     Does 4 and 5 later sought to proceed pseudonymously, buttressing their motion with sworn declarations and examples of hostility that the community has allegedly demonstrated over the lawsuit.
     They submitted screenshots of emails their attorney received from community members, as well as screenshots from comments that members of the community have left on various Facebook pages and news articles.
     Noting that the school district failed to respond by deadline, McVerry granted the plaintiffs anonymity on May 24. The emails sent to the plaintiffs’ attorneys amount to “nothing other than unwarranted character attacks on that attorney and members of his firm,” the ruling states.
     Several other factors weighed in the plaintiffs’ favor, the court found.
     “First, the identity of the Doe litigants has been kept confidential throughout this entire process,” McVerry wrote. “Second, a number of the statements referenced in the filings of record extended beyond simple ad hominem rhetoric, although it certainly appears to include threats of violence and ostracism. Third, there is no record evidence that the parties are seeking to sue pseudonymously for any other reason than stated or have any illegitimate ulterior motives been alleged or shown. Fourth, there is a substantial public interest in ensuring that litigants not face such retribution in their attempt to seek redress for what they view as a constitutional violation.”
     The public’s interest does not warrant revealing Does 4 and 5’s identities, the ruling states.
     “On the other side of the scale, only one factor is against the use of anonymous litigation: the public’s general interest in having access to the identity of litigants,” McVerry wrote. “However, the issue in this case does not turn on the identity of the plaintiff, and the court presently does not see how denying plaintiffs’ request will interfere with the public’s right to follow the proceedings, which will be kept open to the public while maintaining the confidentiality of the Does’ identities. The Doe plaintiffs are not public figures and the district neither objects nor offers evidence that granting the request would in any way create some undue hardship. Therefore, the single interest disfavoring anonymity does not outweigh the strength of the many factors that support plaintiffs’ request.”

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